Making Marginal Gains in Your Research Writing

So much academic output is focused on the written word. Yet so little time is spent looking at how to do it. Further, once we do it, we never look at how we could improve the process – even if marginally. Through use of the concept of marginal gains, I thought you could improve your productivity by an article (or more) per year.


Other than when you started your PhD, I can't think of a better time than right now to start improving your writing. And by right now, I don't just mean as you're watching this video. I mean right now is in this current period where we face ourselves with lots of restrictions around movement associated with COVID-19. I think if you've been forced out of the lab or out of the field or you've been forced to do everything from home, then you've probably potentially run out of things to do. But one of the things that you can continue to do regardless of whether you have data or not is to write.

One of the things that I think you should be trying to get into as a student is to get into the habit of writing daily. Certainly, daily in terms of the number of workdays you have if you enjoy writing. Then you might decide that you want to write daily and take that into 7 days a week. A lot of the advice for PhD students is to write as you go. I think that's okay advice but not great, and the reason why I think that's not great is because one, often students interpret that as right as you go as in write your thesis as you go, and that's kind of impractical from my perspective. It's really hard to write what I would consider a story, your thesis, the story of your research when you don't really know what the ending is. You don't really know what the results are it's really hard to write that out. So, writing as you go can be tough particularly once you've already written say, your lit review which might you know stay roughly the same between when you start, and when you finish. But other aspects might change entirely depending on the results that you get or the research that you conduct or the questions that you ask. So, I think writing as you go needs to be taken into a broader context. So, I think writing as you go should be things like you know, writing up your workbook, your research notes, writing up your methods really well, those kinds of things.

Then once you've completed that writing, then I think the writing as you go. So, if you think about daily writing should be summaries of articles, and they don't have to be long but I'm not talking about copying the abstract either. I'm saying write a summary about what you took from the article because sometimes what you took from the article might actually be in the methods rather than in the body of the article. Therefore, hardly at all covered by the abstract.

The other thing that you can do to write daily is to write a blog or write some you know your own diary. Just something to get you in the habit of writing every single day. I'm not talking heaps of writing. You know, you might set a timer, and just do 20 minutes. But I think the biggest gain you can make as a PhD student right now during COVID-19, when you're not at the office, when you're not in the lab, when you're not at your university is to develop a writing habit.

So, go ahead. Stop watching. Start writing.